The foods you eat have a lot to do with how you feel, in a myriad of ways you might not imagine. Certain foods help the brain function better and eating more of them might even help prevent dementia. Other foods, or food ingredients, can directly or indirectly wreak havoc in the brain, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, depressed mood, fatigue, or “brain fog”. With some simple dietary changes you might find that food has a powerful impact on how you feel.
Chemistry of Mood
Neurotransmitters (NTs) are chemicals in the brain and nervous system that connect the brain cells and nerves to one another. You need a healthy supply and balance of NTs in order for the brain to function well and they work in different areas of the brain to control muscle movement, sensation, thoughts and mood.
When it comes to mood, there are four main NTs that have the most impact on how we feel. Serotonin helps us be happy and relaxed, dopamine correlates with pleasure and satisfaction, epinephrine drives energy and critical thinking, while GABA provides a calming effect needed to balance the other more excitatory NTs.
Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain
The blood vessels that supply the brain have very specialized cells that filter the blood entering the brain tissue. This filter is called the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and it tightly regulates what compounds can get from the bloodstream into the brain. When this barrier is healthy it keeps toxins and inflammatory chemicals in the bloodstream out of the brain, but if the barrier is damaged then all sorts of mood altering chemicals have free passage into the brain. This is called “leaky brain”.
The gut is very similar to the brain in that the toxins, infectious agents, and indigested foods are kept within the gut by a tight barrier that separates the lining of the gut from the bloodstream. When this gut barrier is damaged then the gut contents have free passage through the gut wall into the underlying bloodstream and up against the largest part of the immune system. Now we have “leaky gut”.
Leaky gut and leaky brain often go hand in hand. The same insults that cause one also cause the other. Stress, environmental toxins, medications, infections and foods such as gluten or dairy are well understood to sometimes cause leaky gut and leaky brain.
When leaky brain is present all these toxins, pathogens, partially broken down food particles and inflammation causing chemicals all can enter into the brain tissue and radically affect the balance of NTs. This change in brain chemistry alters the mood and function of the brain.
Consider all the strange and toxic chemicals in our food supply that can alter brain function particularly when leaky brain is present. Food additives, artificial sweeteners, flavorings and colorings, and preservatives line the ingredient lists. Herbicides, pesticides and insecticides are rampant in food production. All these chemicals have the potential to damage or alter the healthy function of our brain tissue and thus affect mood.
Better Food, Better Mood
A few simple dietary changes can often help with moods and brain function. Increase foods that are rich in nutrients needed for brain function as well as foods that combat the brain damaging and mood hampering effects of inflammation and oxidation.
Get happy with tryptophan, the amino acid precursor to serotonin. While you’re at it, boost your satisfaction, pleasure, energy and concentration by promoting dopamine and epinephrine with another amino acid called tyrosine, or its precursor phenylalanine. All these amino acids are derived from proteins such as red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, fermented soy products such as tempeh and miso, and certain nuts and seeds. Tyrosine is also present in avocados and bananas.
If you are going more plant based in your diet, then consider other foods such as legumes, grains and veggies, but they are considered incomplete proteins because they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids. When you put these foods together, however, you can get a complete amino acid source. As long as one consumes plant-based foods in combination, such as beans and rice, adequate protein should be available.
For a calming effect go for foods that support GABA. This includes fish, especially halibut and mackerel, spinach, broccoli, almonds, walnuts, brown rice, lentils, oats, and bananas. Wheat germ and whole wheat supports GABA, but wheat is a very common food allergen, and spikes insulin, so take caution with wheat products.
Eat more brain protecting foods that squelch inflammation including berries, especially blueberries, and fresh organic fruits and vegetables in general. Include omega-3 fats that help make up healthy brain tissue, from foods such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, avocados, nuts, flaxseed, oils (olive, walnut, almond, flax) and seeds.
Avoid the “quick fix to happiness” of sugar and high-glycemic foods that break down quickly to glucose. Both of these will cause the pancreas to release a surge of insulin to deal with the sudden high blood glucose. This spike in insulin will boost serotonin, but only temporarily, leaving you with rebound low blood sugar and low serotonin, thus feeling poorly and craving more of the sweets. Also avoid processed, packaged foods high in chemicals and fried foods high in inflammation causing fats. Along those lines, grass fed or free range animal products have less inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and more of the good omega-3 fats.
Delayed Food Allergies
Eat certain foods and feel lousy later. That would be delayed food allergies. By provoking the immune system that surrounds the gut, delayed food allergens cause a surge of brain changing chemicals to be released, typically 12 to 72 hours after eating. Unlike immediate allergies, such as hives or hayfever symptoms, these allergies are sneaky and easy to miss. Foods you eat every day could be causing mental changes.
Here are some real-life examples from our clinic. Sally is about 35 years old and for years suffered from anxiety to the point where she would barely leave home to go shopping, and would never drive. Jane is 65 and was told by her doctor she was depressed and had early dementia. Bob is 50 and complained of severe fatigue. All three of these patients had their symptoms completely resolve with the elimination of food allergens. We test 5 to 6 patients each week and we routinely see this sort of clinical improvement.
Make the simple dietary changes, heal the gut, and get tested for delayed food allergies. These are just a few components of a functional medicine approach to getting to root cause of mental symptoms. If you are interested in more details schedule a free consult with our health and wellness coordinator, Brooke Kollman. It may just change your attitude!
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.